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Introduction to Primary Sources

What is a Primary Source?

Primary sources are produced by participants or direct observers of an issue, event or time period. These sources may be recorded during the event or later on, by a participant reflecting upon the event. In some cases, it will be difficult to obtain the original source, so you may have to rely on copies (photocopies, microfilm, digital copies). Copies or transcriptions of a primary source still count as a primary source.  

Some examples of primary sources include:

  • Newspapers
  • Speeches
  • Government documents
  • Legal documents
  • Public opinion polls
  • Personal materials, including letters, diaries, interviews, memoirs, autobiographies, and oral histories
  • Images
  • Works of art (novels, plays, paintings, etc.)

How to Analyze Primary Sources

While primary sources are often desirable for the raw, non-interpreted information they provide, it is important to analyze them for your research. Ask yourself these questions:

  • Who is the creator and what was their relationship to the event or issue?
  • Why did the creator produce this source?
  • Was the source for personal use?  For a large audience?
  • Was the source intended to be public (newspaper) or private (correspondence)?
  • Everyone has biases. What biases or interests might have influenced how the source was created?
  • Can the source be substantiated by other primary sources? Can you confirm what the creator is saying?

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Is a primary source the same as primary research?

No.

The term primary research refers to the data collected by a researcher (through experiments, surveys, observations, etc) that they then analyze in their original work. Secondary data analysis happens when a researcher analyzes existing data sets (as when one uses US Census information in their research).

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